The American Civil War in Global History


From the European perspective alone with a death toll of over 600,000 in a population of 40 million, the loss of life in the American Civil War was seen as proportionately less severe than that in other contemporary conflicts. However, the ramifications can be said to have been measurably much wider, because it occurred in a semi-industrial society, using the most modern weapons, and despite widespread sympathy for the southern Confederacy in conservative circles in Europe, it did not become a world war simply because neither Britain nor France had a direct interest in intervention.

The American Civil War had widespread consequences across Eurasia as well as Central and South America. This is a further testimony to the tightening connections within the world economy and diplomatic order. The distraction of the United States during the war, for example, allowed a brief independence in foreign policy-making to Mexico. The Civil War also encouraged France to make  its foray into the sacrosanct territory of the Monroe Doctrine with its ill-fated attempt to support the creation of a French-leaning Mexican Empire in 1862-3. The end of the Civil War, in turn, put pressure on the French invaders and saved the Mexican liberal republic. Blatant foreign intervention stirred peasant patriotism to a new bravado, which was still felt during the full-scale Mexican revolution of 1911. Meanwhile, the defeat of Napoleon's escapade's also gave France's European competitors, notably Bismarck, a strong sense of the limitations of French power. The Civil War may also have aborted the emergence of a more aggressive American expansionist policy in the Pacific and the Far East, where Japan was afforded a short, but critical respite from Western pressure.
In addition, the ripples of economic consequence can be seen extending outward from North America at this time. For example, the defeat of the South caused a commercial depression in Cuba, once American exports of raw cotton and tobacco resumed. This reinforced the demand of the Cuban Creoles for independence from exasperating Spanish rule. In turn the Cuban revolt contributed to the overthrow of the Spanish liberal regime, which had also been nurtured by Emperor Napoleon III of France. Cuban revolutionaries had  meanwhile carried the flame of war and revolution to the Dominican Republic.

Britain's dominance of the Atlantic carrying trade, which appeared to be threatened before 1861, was given a new lease of life by the Civil War. The country's cotton factories also boomed. After the period of temporary hardship that followed the abrupt loss of cotton supplies, the textile industry recovered, as overstocking of raw cotton was eliminated. Britain, the great consumer of American raw cotton, now turned to other sources of supply war blockaded the ports of the southern states. Long-staple Egyptian cotton was the best replacement, but short-staple Indian cotton wool also found itself in great demand across the world. Large fortunes were, therefore, made by Indian and Middle-Eastern cotton exporters. The Egyptian government of Khedive Ismail borrowed yet more heavily on the European money markets to sustain an ambitious program of military modernization and public works. British entrepreneurs tried to initiate cotton cultivation in Ottoman Anatolia. The Civil War era, therefore, became the high point of the boom of the mid-Victorian British imperial economy. Growth was fueled both by this sudden rise in cotton and tobacco prices and by the contemporary discoveries of gold in south Australia and western North America. Merchants built huge, neo-gothic palaces in Melbourne, Bombay and Alexandria. Newly rich cotton growing-peasants in India were rumored to have shod the wheels of their carts with silver.

When the crash came, following the resumption of American production, it was a very severe one and began to propel the world economy into the despondency of the long depression of the 1970s and 1880s. The collapse of cotton prices after 1867 was a terminal wound for Egyptian finances and ushered in the constitutional crisis which racked the country throughout the 1870s. The simultaneous collapse of Indian cotton prices and concurrent famines in western India encouraged the growth of a new militancy in town and countryside. Though the links were indirect, the prevalence of rural poverty in the cotton tracts powerfully assisted the growth of the anti-British nationalism in western India. Even in distant Russia, the dangerous dependence on American cotton supplies revealed by the Civil War gave militarists a justification to seize the rich black soils of central Asia which were ideal for growing cotton.

The American Civil War can, therefore, be placed in a global context much in the same sense as the 1848 revolutions, because direct connections of trade, government and ideology spread its effects across the globe. Yet did its origins and outcomes have any generic connection with contemporary events in Europe and Asia? There do appear to be some distant comparisons. In crushing the emerging Confederate state, the Union was itself following, and contributing to, a much wider realignment in which large and unified nations and more centralized and economically sophisticated supremacy replaced the still loose and varied policies of the early nineteenth century. Across the northern states of America, a more self-conscious economic and political nation was emerging. Northerners feared the rivalry of a slave nation' to the south and west, because they might have been amenable to foreign influence. Like the denizens of emerging Germany, they were protectionists who wished to build up their nascent industries, and they were suspicious of the free-trading proclivities of the South and its links with the British.

Prior to 1860, the American federal government was a weak institution, even by the standards of contemporary European politics. This was one reason why the southern states were able to secede from the Union in the first place. To fight the war, Abraham Lincoln called on the northern states for armed support. The war itself brought into being, at least temporarily, a more powerful, armed, and centralised government with a distinct line of interventionist policy and an enlarged bureaucracy. Yet even after the power of the federal government had waned again, individual states retained some of the new forms of governance which they had developed during the war. Wider than this, something akin to American nationalism, though still fractured by loyalty to state and locality, began fitfully to emerge. In this sense again, the bloody birth of a stronger federal America was distantly related to the movements for Italian or German unification and the modernisation of Japan.  In the English-speaking world, the Canadian Consolidation (1868) and the consolidation of British New Zealand during the same era represented parallel developments. Economic change now seemed to demand the creation of larger, unified nation states. More educated and self-aware middle classes raved the psychological protection that such states were believed to afford. There were exceptions, of course. The scattered British colonists in Australia did not finally pool their resources until the beginning of the next century. here, state building worked slowly from the bottom up, as colonists found they had more and more in common as they traded, legislated and worshiped together in the vast southern continent. Their pattern of development resembled what hat of the United States might have been had it not been for the explosive issues of slavery and expansion to the west.

The American Civil War also signaled the final demise of a core constituent of the Western arm of the old eighteenth -century British world economy. It was of symbolic importance that the great, and mainly British-founded, slave plantations of the southern American states disappeared within ten years of the demise of that other key institution of the British world of the eighteenth century, the East India Company. That corrupt old monopoly had finally been displayed as incompetent even in regard to its residual military and government functions.

Somewhat inevitably, the most enveloping and long-term effects of the Civil War were registered in the domain of war-making itself. In many respects, this was the first heavily mechanized war in history. Heavy guns devastated traditional large infantry formations and whole cities were devastated by the effects of long-term bombardment. Cameras were now on hand to record suffering and to stimulate patriotism. The commanders of European armies learned quickly. A huge increase in the production of war material spread new forms of weaponry, especially small arms, across the world. Legally traded or smuggled weapons found their way to Europe, Asia and Africa strengthening the forces of royal and colonial armies, but eagerly sought by revolutionaries, anarchists and peasant rebels.